What to do about climate change (4): Greta Thunberg’s call for action

by Ingrid Robeyns on October 31, 2022

Yesterday I attended/watched four talks on climate action. The first three were at a festival in Amsterdam where Chris Armstrong, a new branch on our crooked tree, was also speaking, on his book on oceans politics. First I attended two talks by some Dutch-speaking people (including David Van Reybrouck, famous author of the colonial histories Congo and Revolusi, who is now fully dedicated to working on ecological causes). Then I attended Andreas Malm’s talk on how to fight in a world on fire. Nothing special to report for those who have read the book – but given the pretty critical discussion of my bookreview of his work here recently I’d thought I should mention that he came across as more nuanced than [how I read] his book. For example, he stressed that the vast majority of the climate movement will remain peaceful, and that those who want to move to sabotage must carefully choose their targets – focussing on targets that are part of the problem, and as part of an action that doesn’t alienate people but instead lets the climate movement grow.

But the most interesting talk of the day was by Greta Thunberg, who launched The Climate Book at the London Literature Festival. Thunberg has put together a one-stop-volume on climate change and climate action. You can watch her speech and subsequent interview here (it effectively starts at 14’35”). In essence, Thunberg believes that governments are not going to do what is needed without millions more climate activists putting pressure on those governments, so that they speed up action and put the interests of ordinary people central. At some point, she mentions that so many individuals have the opportunity to be an activist, but don’t. She clearly sees this as a [moral, political] duty (she also uses the word “burden” at some point), and calls upon everyone to join a local activist group.

What I found so striking is the contrast between Thunberg’s speech, and the dominant speech by our politicians. Because our politicians will do anything they can to (1) not open up a discussion on historic responsibilities; (2) deny how much they are bending to the strategies and interests of those who still want to dig up the fossil fuels; and (3) now talk about this problem as yet another issue that requires normal, technocratic, policy making. That allows them to avoid debating the question whether deep decarbonization can be done without some people giving up some key privileges, whether some companies might need to be confronted with some degree of coercion, and whether a sustainable future on this planet requires another economic system.

The contrast between what most politicians talk about when they talk about climate and what activists talk about couldn’t be bigger. And for those of us who believe the activists have legitimate claims, this is deeply troubling.



Ingrid Robeyns 10.31.22 at 4:36 pm

haha, I now see that Chris and I were writing our posts at the same time. So, dual reporting from the same festival.


Sashas 10.31.22 at 5:26 pm

Apologies in advance for the tangent!

[Thunberg] clearly sees this as a [moral, political] duty (she also uses the word “burden” at some point), and calls upon everyone to join a local activist group.

Thunberg is likely thinking of climate activist groups, specifically, but the fate of our climate is not the only impending disaster. If we agree that we each have a moral, political duty to join a local activist group, is this a separate duty for each crisis or a singular duty across all of them? In other words, am I morally obligated to join “a local activist group”–words as written–or am I obligated to join a climate activist group, and a reproductive freedom activist group, and a voting rights activist group, and…

Each possibility offers its own logistical challenge.

If I am obligated to each crisis separately, how am I expected to find time for all of that without burning out immediately? How can we justify a real obligation to all of these organizations when it seems hard enough to get people to participate at all? Are we setting the bar too high? And if so, how can we lower it? My lay impression is that most high profile activists are high profile activists on a single issue. Would we expect them to be high profile on many issues, or is being high profile part of a qualitatively different obligation than being an activist in the first place?

If I am obligated to the crises collectively, then are there related moral obligations around where we collectively place our focus? If so, what are they? What obligations arise when I make a deliberate choice to spend my activist energy in one area but not another?


Ingrid Robeyns 10.31.22 at 7:06 pm

Sashas @2 – thanks, this is an important issue. Two points I can offer in response (and curious what others have to say).

First, Thunberg acknowledges explicitely that many of these crises and forms of injustices are interrelated; and many climate activists stress that this is also a form of global injustice, since, roughly, the global north has caused the problem but most of the harm will fall on people living (and dying) in the global south. David Van Reybrouck therefore calls this a new form of colonialism – the colonisation of the future.

Second, I don’t know what Thunberg would answer, but I’ve developed an answer on this specific question over the years (since I give a lot of talks with debates with citizens, and this question has come up). I think if all of us were to become truly active for one major cause (climate, protecting democracy, empowering the vulnerable and the poor, racism, homophobia, sexism, antisemitism, human rights protection, etc. etc.) than that would be a massive increase in the number of activists. Many people do something for the common good, but helping out in the school or the sports club of your children is (generally) not a form of activism. It is voluntary work that benefits the community (or some people in that community) and it does not address a structural wrong or injustice. If we all were to pick one wrong or injustice to fight for (and that one could change over time), and everyone who is able does so, then the world would be much, much better, and no-one would have to burn out. Also, if one has spent some years being extremely active (e.g. an activist leader), then one might well take several years off from activism to recover.


Peter Dorman 10.31.22 at 7:30 pm

I agree very much with Ingrid’s response (@3), especially the second half, but there’s another aspect to this question. There are many important issues out there, and while they are connected in some respects, they are also distinct and tend to appeal to different values and perceptions. The particular set of people who are prepared to go to the mat over Issue A will not be the same set as those who champion a particular side in B, C or D. There can be solid majorities for action on each specific issue, yet only a minority shares the same view on all of them together.

This is a normal condition in a democracy, and I wouldn’t even call it a problem, since navigating our way through it is what politics is for.

I’m pretty sure there’s a majority for significant action on climate change, if not for the more radical measures we really need, but it splinters when political mechanisms, like elections, force us to declare ourselves on a diverse group of issues in one bundle.

I think this is where dramatic activism — demonstrations, pressure campaigns, strikes and other attention-focusing actions — comes in. It creates a situation in which one particular issue is given temporary priority, and the latent majority for it can express itself despite differences elsewhere. This is a one-at-a-time logic, and there’s no getting around how the prominence it gives one question entails putting the others off to the side. It can help if activists make it clear they are not demanding we focus on issue X because it is everything, but only because we need to focus on it for a while in order to make progress.

My favorite analogy is to ketchup back in the days before it was homogenized. It used to be that you had to shake the bottle vigorously along the axis of its pouring in order to get it out. The reason was that it consisted of irregularly shaped tomato particles suspended in a flavored liquid. Shaking caused the particles to be aligned, which reduced the ketchup’s viscosity. Dramatic activism is that same shaking.


Omega Centauri 10.31.22 at 7:45 pm

Its hard for me to be motivated by this. Here in the US voters only care about the price of chicken and gasoline. And we are very very likely to have gridlock for the next two years. So whatever national progress we’ve made is going to end. Not even abortion rights are likely to trump the inflation issue. And in the UK the new PM seems set to start reversing already agreed targets.


Moz in Oz 10.31.22 at 8:19 pm

The contrast between what most politicians talk about when they talk about climate and what activists talk about couldn’t be bigger. And for those of us who believe the activists have legitimate claims, this is deeply troubling.

It’s not just climate activists who have this problem. Even far right activists generally struggle with the actions of their preferred politicians. Witness Trump and the non-existent re-opening of coal mines in the USA.

Intersectional activism is a very old problem, and it is one of the things that leads to dismissing “woke kids” as being fixated on getting more drag queens into libraries… as intersectionalists, of course they support that particular battle but it’s not their main focus. Same way as I supported the same-sex marriage cause in Australia even though I was certain that there would be no more support for marriage equality here afterwards than there was before.

My personal solution is to pick a battle or two that I am passionate about and put most of my time into that work. But I’m on a bunch of email lists and I happily sign petitions or send letters when prompted. Even when I have reservations, as with “The Voice”, a proposal to amend the Australian constitution to include an unfunded, purely advisory, group of first nations people that our parliament can consult if they feel like it. It seems like a lot of fuss for a purely symbolic gesture, when the constitution would ideally be substantive. But anyway… I’ll vote yes, I’ll probably donate a little money and time, but I’m very unenthused by it.


engels 10.31.22 at 8:38 pm

To me the concept of “activist” presupposes that most of the population is somewhat passive. If everyone was a single issue activist I’m not sure anyone would be able to influence anything, as everyone else would already have their own issue they were trying to keep top of the agenda.


Guy 10.31.22 at 9:40 pm

@6 I think the first sentence is correct, but the second doesn’t follow, because activists aren’t the only actors trying to influence policy. On the topic at hand, fossil fuel companies are a massive influence group. When there are fewer activists competing for influence, that doesn’t mean that each individual activist is more influential; it means that the preponderance of influence lies even more so with non-activist actors such as the fossil fuel lobby.

If policy was decided by too many people each trying to change the world for the better but getting in each other’s way, that would be a massive improvement over the status quo.


Moz in Oz 10.31.22 at 11:05 pm

If policy was decided by too many people each trying to change the world for the better but getting in each other’s way, that would be a massive improvement over the status quo.

Very much this. With the caveat that to many people “better” simply means “I, personally, have more”. They’re winning, in a very shortsighted sense, because a whole lot of systems have been set up to reward that behaviour.

WRT to passivism, I’ve noticed that in discussions of the more obvious climate activism there are always vocal opponents who claim to support the overall goal but are repulsed by both any activism that inconveniences anyone, and also by any suggestion that they personally should face any cost. Those “supporters” are another cliche problem for change, and to a large extent they have a close parallel in our leadership – people who agree that the problem exists but want a zero-cost solution, including cost in the form of change.

We address them, as always, by continuing our activism. This is where diversity of activism is useful, partly because there might be a way of putting the solution that is acceptable to some of the “support, but” people. But also by grinding them down by being everywhere, all the time. Knitting nannas at Christmas dinner, Extinction Rebellion gluing themselves to the train on their way to work, Critical Mass blocking their drive home on Friday night, Greenpeace hanging a banner on the TV news…


Joe B. 11.01.22 at 5:38 am

@6 Moz in Oz — “Even far right activists generally struggle with the actions of their preferred politicians. Witness Trump and the non-existent re-opening of coal mines in the USA.” I fear you misread the American right wing. They don’t care to know whether those coal mines are re-opened. …. Trumpism cannot fail, it only can be failed. Right wing leaders (and the occasional megalomaniac billionaire) even stoke the belief that the attempted assassination of Nancy Pelosi was a Democratic plot — and some of them probably believe it.


nastywoman 11.01.22 at 10:48 pm

in CHRIS ARMSTRONG’s words =


(and y’all NEED to do it)


engels 11.02.22 at 7:03 pm

This, in today’s Guardian, seems like the most ineffective form of political action I can imagine: writing a letter to my future self.


Gareth Wilson 11.03.22 at 2:12 am

Writing a letter to your past self, however, is an extremely effective form of political action if they can receive it.


engels 11.03.22 at 10:05 am

Dear 20-years-older-me: act now, before it’s too late. Regards, You-20-years-ago


MFB 11.03.22 at 11:21 am

Thunberg is clearly right, insofar as no major Western government, nor any of the governments under their control or substantial influence, is pursuing policies likely to reduce carbon emissions (or their equivalent) substantially.

The problem is that there is no organisation devoted to accomplishing this goal. One cannot conjure millions of supporters out of thin air simply because the issue is important and one’s ideas are sound. I don’t see Thunberg as an effective organisational person (it would be nice if I were wrong about this) but rather a sort of Joan of Arc lacking a Dauphin to support her.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of organisations devoted to sabotaging this goal, and these often claim that they are devoted to the goal. Hence Thunberg can see, and everyone can see, that Western political parties are not going to accomplish anything apart from talking very loudly about their glorious policies and how they are saving the planet. But it will take decades to set up organisations which could seriously challenge this, and I don’t have any idea where to start. And even if we know where to start and could start today, do we really have decades?


weichi 11.03.22 at 2:09 pm

“no major Western government, nor any of the governments under their control or substantial influence, is pursuing policies likely to reduce carbon emissions (or their equivalent) substantially.”

Are there any governments pursuing such policies?


JimV 11.03.22 at 4:08 pm

I’m not going to join an activist group that requires me to own a car (or rent or hire one) or fly in airplanes or have a smart phone, because not doing those things has been my goal for most of my life. (Ever since Jobs screwed me by making the Apple II obsolete with his user-unfriendly Macintosh I have boycotted Apple projects.) I am living proof that you can have a tolerable existence without a car, even in a walker-unfriendly suburb where families taxi their children to play-dates.

I will vote and recycle and donate to various causes almost every day and use the same plastic straw for over a year (if and when I buy a milkshake I tell them I don’t need another straw), because I didn’t need a climatologist (although I appreciate them) to tell me where things were going by the 1970’s and 1980’s, compared to the 1950’s. In the 1950’s people walked to the grocery store and the library and the swimming hole, played board games and pick-up softball games, listened to baseball games on the radio, and enjoyed life just as much; and there were about half as many of us. Up to that point in human history, which goes back in written form to when there were hundreds of thousands of us, not millions, it seemed like the Earth had infinite resources, but it became clearer every decade that was not the case.

In the sense that I listen to people like Greta Thonberg I’m part of a general activist group, but mainly I’m in an activist group of one.


Wyote 11.04.22 at 4:26 am

I sympathize with Thunberg. If I were in her place, I can only imagine how angry I’d be. However, it’s probably too late. Boomer voters collectively decided to end all human life by surrendering power to corporate executives who will end it without blinking when that’s what it takes to turn a bigger profit the last quarter before doomsday. Sorry, Greta, no old age for you, but the 1980s were great. I doubt we are capable of doing what we would need to do to take power back, and I am among those who would rather enjoy the final decade or two of human existence than sacrifice my life in a quixotic attempt to save people who are mostly more than willing to let oligarchs kill us all. It’s easier just to virtue signal on social issues and hope that in some way that I can’t foresee it all works out at least as long as I need it to. Thank gods I don’t have kids.

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